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Know your client

“… I look forward to the day when members of the Bar will commence the ‘know your client’ so as to guard and prevent advance…

“… I look forward to the day when members of the Bar will commence the ‘know your client’ so as to guard and prevent advance fee fraud and corruption in the country. Members of this noble profession should know the source of wealth of their clients otherwise they run the risk of complicity.” -Abubakar Malami, Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice at a book launch, titled ‘Fundamental Principles of Nigeria Criminal Law’

The ‘Know Your Client’ rule is mostly practiced by financial advisers, it implies that a business will carry out due diligence on a client to verify that they are who they say they are to prevent theft, fraud, money laundering and terrorist financing. It is also “a standard form in the investment industry that ensures investment advisors know detailed information about their client’s risk, tolerance, investment knowledge and financial position”.

In the legal profession, it can be implied that ‘know your client’ means lawyers should verify the source of their client’s wealth or know what the client does before taking their brief. Take for instance, a client works into my office and says ‘am a senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, and the way things are going in this country I feel my name would be mentioned in the Dasukigate and I need a lawyer’. What do I do as a lawyer? Do I turn down his brief because I feel he is guilty and I don’t like corruption or should I go further and ask if the client has stolen any other government money and then turn down the brief?

Recently the President of the Nigerian Bar Association, Paul Usoro SAN, pleaded not guilty before a Federal High Court Lagos to charges bordering on N1.4 billion fraud preferred against him by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).

Also named in the charge is incumbent governor of Akwa Ibom State, who is described in the charge as ‘currently constitutionally immune from prosecution’ for monies paid to the NBA president as professional fees.

Rule 7 of the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners (2007) provides that every person accused of crime has a right to a fair trial, including persons whose conduct, reputation or alleged violation may be the subject of public unpopularity or clamour. This places a duty of service on the legal profession and, where particular employment is declined, the refusal of the brief may not be justified merely on account of belief in the guilt of the accused, or repugnance towards him or to the crime or offense as charged.

While discussing the issue on the NBA Kaduna branch Whatsapp platform, a senior colleague, Solomon Utuagha, Esq opined that “…it is not right to hold legal practitioners responsible for being paid, if the system is good the government will have everyone’s details and business activities. There is nowhere in our Legal Practitioners Act where lawyers have a duty to investigate clients.”

It is true that the legal profession as practiced in Nigeria is unique to the Nigerian culture, and the moment clients become aware of the fact that a particular lawyer grills his clients about the source of their money, that is the moment that lawyer begins to lose clients, it is also true that even if the clients agrees to reveal the source of their wealth, the lawyers knowledge of the source is only restricted to what the client reveals and nothing more. So what if the senator says he hasn’t stolen government money, does the statement become true because the client says so?

To my mind, the intent behind the ‘know your client’ rule is beautiful and may help in the fight against corruption. A legal professional cannot possibly know the source of a client’s wealth. But then again, the Nigerian legal industry can have a KYC compliance form once a client briefs a legal professional to fill, so that when issues arise as to the source of a client’s money used to pay for professional service, all the lawyer need do is present the KYC form as filled by the client, whether the information supplied in the KYC form is accurate or not, is left for security agencies to investigate and not the legal professional.

Lawyers are instrumental to the fight against corruption; this does not however mean that the practice of a legal professional should suffer because Nigeria wants to fight corruption.

Godspeed!

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